The ‘tarlic lamp cast brooding shadows around the tent. Petra had not touched the food on the table. Nor had her mother.
When her mother raised her cup to sip, it shook, and she quickly set it down. Something like fear made lines on her face. “Petra …”
Her mother shook her head.
Petra yearned to talk, to explain. But the words caught in her throat. Saying them would only make what she dreaded true.
A rumble of voices filtered in from the council tent, shouts that carried across Ward’s empty tent to theirs. A woman’s voice rose, strident; a roar of men’s voices drowned it out. Then came Gronnor’s harsh bellow, cutting off speech. They could hear the anger, the hostility, the fear in the voices, but not the words.
“Ma, shouldn’t you …”
“I was told to stay away.”
“Because of me.”
A tear started in the corner of her mother’s eye and she dabbed at it.
Petra reached out a hand, then drew it back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I know, dear. But I don’t think ‘sorry’ will be enough.”
Petra was silent. That her mother was excluded confirmed her guess: the council meeting was about dead goats and their irresponsible shepherd.
It wasn’t about the deaths of the elders. It wasn’t about Lucan, dead in the poisoned pool. It wasn’t about the Broks who’d killed him. Cort had made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t to say what she’d seen. He’d gouged her arm with his fingers as he marched her back to camp, his eyes and grim expression warning that he’d slap her again if she spoke.
Lucan’s mother had been one of those who’d run to her aid, and as far as Petra knew, the woman didn’t yet know that her son was dead. Dead and unsung. No one had said the wayrite for him. Petra was sure of that, because Lucan’s eyes had still been open.
She shuddered. It was wrong to keep silent and too late, anyway. “Ma, about the cave … in the pool, I—”
“Petra, I do not want to hear your talk!” Her mother’s voice cracked on the last word.
Petra gulped and fought down a wave of nausea. Her head was hammering, the pains in her chest and leg were back with a vengeance, and her bandaged arm throbbed. She tried to put her thoughts in order, in case they called her to explain, to defend herself. She hadn’t been that far from the pasture. And how would anyone guess there’d be carrion bats so close to camp? Shouldn’t lookouts and patrols have seen them?
But they wouldn’t call her. They wouldn’t let her speak, any more than her mother would. On the way back, understanding had bloomed like poison in the gut.
Since the clans’ joining, the camp guards and lookouts and valley patrols had been Broks, because their best trailsmen had died in their last raid. Lucan had been the only Drakhorn lookout, and he’d always watched the upper valley. Brok patrols should have noticed the carrion bats. Broks should have gone south for help, but had killed Lucan instead. Brok lookouts had watched them turn north, but said nothing.
No matter what she said, she’d be accusing the Broks of treachery.
If she kept silent, they could choose to believe she’d seen nothing. They could choose mercy. If she spoke, she might not live to see the dawn—and who else would die?
After a while, the voices went silent.
Petra hoped the kin had calmed down and gone to their suppers. “Ma, you should eat,” she whispered.
A harsh, forlorn bray broke the new quiet. That was Mistake, the last mule in the stable pen. All the rest were on the trail.
Then came a sharp knock on the Herm post. Before her mother could answer, and though the outer door was drawn shut, Mollos Brok barged in. Behind him heaved the bulk of Ursil, Gench’s wife. Neither of them had taken off their camp shoes.
“What is this?” exclaimed Petra’s mother.
Mollos pointed a hairy finger at Petra. “She’s to come,” he said, stone-faced.
Petra’s stomach contracted as though a belt had been cinched too tight. She looked at her mother.
“What do you mean?” said her mother, her voice rising. “Explain this intrusion into my tent—into Karl’s tent.”
“She’s to come; order of the council,” repeated Mollos, in a flat voice.
As he’d ducked to enter, Petra had seen three handles protruding above each shoulder—throwing knives. Their sheaths were strapped to his back.
Feet scuffled and voices muttered outside the tent. There was a whole crowd of people there.
Elder Jess nearly fell through the door, with one camp shoe undone. She hurried to Petra’s mother, who rose to meet her. Petra rose as well, unsure.
“Sit down, Petra,” barked her mother.
“Get up, girl,” barked Ursil.
Everything got loud and confused. Jess tried to speak to her mother, who screamed at Mollos. The man folded his hairy arms and glared at them. Beside him, Ursil huffed and snorted.
Petra stood stiff and still. She could hear the words, but part of her refused to accept them. The blood pounded in her ears.
A whipping. Three strokes of the silk.
This couldn’t be real. It was a nightmare she would wake from. She was a Drakhorn. She was Huntmaster Karl Drakhorn’s daughter. It couldn’t be this.
Ursil reached for her arm. Petra stepped quickly across the table to Elder Jess, upsetting the teapot.
“Elder, I want to … get ready.” She nodded toward her partition. She couldn’t keep her voice steady.
Ursil bellowed, “You’ll not need to dress! Get over here.”
“Elder, please, I just need a minute to use the pot,” whispered Petra, desperately.
Jess understood. “You just give her a moment to prepare,” she shouted at Mollos and Ursil. Her face was blotchy, her gray hair spilling loose from its band.
Mollos’s face contorted. “She’s sly, that one. She’ll be out the side before you know it.”
“You imbecile! There’s the whole camp outside,” screamed Jess.
But Mollos wouldn’t have it. And Petra wouldn’t allow herself to be dragged out like a disobedient kid. She would walk and stand tall if she could stand at all. She went with them, and her mother’s anguished cries followed her out. Ursil kept trying to grab her arm. Petra had to punch her behind the elbow to get her off. Mollos laughed at Ursil’s squawks.
Petra was marched past Ward’s dark tent and around to the yard behind the council tent. The whole camp trailed behind, with children hovering at the fringes.
They had put up the tripod.
Just three long poles tied together at the apex, two with crossbars between to make a canted rack. Gronnor stood beside it, like Death looming.
Petra had only heard of the tripod from the gossip of kids, because adults wouldn’t speak of it. They used the tripod to teach the lesson of the silk.
In the Drakhorn camp the silk had been taught only once in her memory. She’d been nine, and had been made to stay in the tent. She’d had to cover her ears because of the screams. Sometimes, years later, she could still hear them. The older kids said the man had raped a shepherd girl in a shelter. For that, Ward had taught him the lesson of the silk. Afterward, he’d been kept in a cage until Winter Camp, then sold to a downland farmer. That was the sort of person who was taught the silk.
Petra waited while the kin formed a circle around the periphery of the yard. The Brok men and some of the Brok women were armed. Gronnor was staring at her. She rubbed damp palms on her loose camp trousers. Her mouth was dry and her blood was pounding. It took all the strength she had not to fall. She saw only the tripod and Gronnor and his eyes gleaming in their caves.
Mollos seized her arm and pulled her across to the tripod. The moon and the torchlight were bright. She wouldn’t have the mercy of darkness for what came next.
“Take off your shirt,” said Mollos.
“No,” said Petra, looking straight at him.
“I said take it off!”
A jabber of voices erupted—Drakhorn women scolding Mollos. A scuffle or two broke out.
Gronnor bellowed, “Shut up the lot of you, or there’ll be more taught the silk this night.” He swept the arm that held the coiled lash slowly around the circle, and paced his words. “Watch and learn. Any who defy—man, woman, or child—I will not hesitate.”
The protests faded to curses. Some women vanished from the fringe; some who had left, returned. It was all women, except Gronnor and his men. No, not all. There was One-armed Canuut, like a broken statue, weathered and gray. Cob was slumped in his chair, looking as though events were unfolding just as badly as he’d expected. Kids hovered in the alleys and peeked around tent corners, eyes round, mouths slack—awed, terrified, fascinated.
“Take off your damn shirt,” growled Mollos.
Suddenly Ursil’s fat hands seized Petra’s collar from behind and tore the shirt down and off her, scattering buttons.
There was a moment of hesitation while Mollos and the kin stared at the bandage wound around Petra’s chest. Then a coldness darted up her back, as Gench slipped his knife under the bandage and slit the fabric.
Now there were only the yellow bruises down her front and side for the kin to gawk at. The breeze raised goosebumps. Petra took quick, shallow breaths, fought the hunching of her shoulders, the gravity that would pull her into a weeping ball, into the ground, into darkness. She kept her back straight, her arms still at her sides, her eyes fixed.
Women were yelling at kids to clear off. Some ran, but not far. For a second, Petra saw Otger’s face behind Canuut’s shoulder, his eyes round as moons.
A distraught cry—Tegan’s mum—and movement caught her eye. Tegan running with bare feet, a knife in her hand, her mum tearing after her with terror on her face. Gench plowed through the ring, tumbling women. He collided with Tegan, and Petra saw the soles of her feet as they flew out from under her. Gench had her wrist, the knife flashed as it tumbled—then he howled. The side of his hand was between Tegan’s teeth. He drew the other back to strike.
“GENCH!” Gronnor’s roar slapped the ears like a blow.
Gench leaped away from Tegan, his mouth gaping in fear, his hands raised in submission, blood running from one of them. Tegan’s mum wrapped Tegan in her arms, and with two other women, hustled the struggling girl away.
Then Petra couldn’t see anyone, because Mollos had shoved her against the bars of the tripod. He tied her wrists to the apex, leaving enough slack in the ropes that she could grip the leaning poles and hold herself awkwardly away from the bars.
Staring at the bars in front of her, she panted shallowly, and steeled herself for … for what? She didn’t know exactly, except that it would be terrible. Her existence narrowed to a single thought, a single fulcrum of determination.
She was a Drakhorn. She was Karl Drakhorn’s daughter. She would not scream. She would not faint. She would not pee.
A touch broke her concentration, a touch like a stone on her neck. Gronnor’s finger. Petra swallowed; her eyes were round. But she wouldn’t turn her head. Couldn’t. The heavy finger traced the contours of her clanmarks.
Angry cries—her mother’s voice. The hideous finger lifted. With scuffling and screams, her mother too was dragged away.
Petra’s arms were shaking from the effort to hold herself up. She would not scream, she would not faint, she would not—
The stroke of the lash, when it came, was a shock, but for a split second, only that. It was nothing against a carrion bat’s claw. It made Petra gasp. But it was not the bite of the silk that mattered. The fine silk cords cut the skin just enough to let the powdered venom in. It was the venom that taught the lesson.
A searing fire flashed across her back. Her muscles spasmed, making her back arch and forcing her breath out in an ugly dog-like yelp. Her arms buckled and she fell against the bars. She struggled there, and it seemed ages before she could draw a breath and grasp the poles again. Her eyes streamed with tears and the bars were flecked with blood.
When the second stroke came, she had just breathed out, and was trying to swallow bile. She couldn’t gasp breath in, and so had none to scream with. She banged into the bars, twisted and writhed like a trout out of water. Her knees gave way, and she hung from the ropes around her wrists. Flames roared in her head. It was a long time before she found the strength to stand and grip the poles again. But find the strength she did, from what well she did not know. She drew long shuddering gasps. The breaths came out in sobs.
She couldn’t remember what it was she shouldn’t do. It was something important, because … because she was a Drakhorn. Because she was Karl’s daughter, she … she would not scream, she would not faint, she would not—
Gronnor waited until Petra had dragged in a lungful of air before he gave the final stroke, and the air came out in a scream that echoed across the valley and made the staunchest elders clutch their heads in despair.
Petra slipped down to hang limp from her bound wrists. The last thing she remembered was the hot pee running down her leg.